Why You Need to Cultivate Meaningful Mentor Relationships
I started my company because of one woman.
She is the most important person in my professional career. She doesn’t call herself my mentor, but I do every day to anyone who will listen.
Over the last three years, she was the first person I looked to when determining how to navigate a tricky team dynamic, advocate for myself, ask to lead my own team, and meet others to guide me.
On Christmas Eve, I called her while she was waiting for her daughter at the Lush store that to tell her I had found a potential business partner, but I wasn’t sure if it was time to launch a company.
In that conversation, virtually every question she asked made it clearer and clearer to me that I didn’t know what I was doing.
“Maybe I’m not ready for this. What if I’m not good at this? What if I let people down?”
She answered, “You’re going to hustle harder than anyone and figure it out. But the question, Alida, is not ‘am I good?’ but ‘am I learning?’ If you’re learning, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to.”
When I thought about the business moving forward, I reframed it as the biggest learning opportunity I’d ever have, not to mention one that would allow me to actualize my deep-seated mission of helping every tech company become the best possible place to work.
Cut to now — every day, I wear a bracelet that says, “always learn.” At any time I feel I’m losing sight of my biggest goal, I look down at my wrist and re-internalize its message.
That’s why even though I spent years as a career coach, I always start with one question when professionals ask how to develop as leaders: do you have a mentor?
What Is Mentorship?
We all vaguely understand what mentorship is. We imagine an experienced person providing guidance to a less experienced person.
But what does that look like in practice? And how does mentorship differ from coaching?
As Adam Fisher explains in Tribe of Mentors, coaches “focus on you first. Mentors rightly focus on themselves first and you second…a good coach builds regimens designed to make you better [versus simply] providing advice, as a mentor would.”
The biggest differentiator between coaches and mentors is that coaches are paid to professionally design performance-enhancing exercises for their teams. Even within companies, coaches are tasked with tailoring practices specific to the needs of those they coach.
Mentors offer their time free of charge and often develop more personal relationships with their mentees. They provide guidance, advice, and recommendations based on their own lived experiences.
“The best mentors will open and read from the private pages of their lives so that you may learn from their mistakes,” writes Leslie Odom Jr. in Failing Up.
The mentor — mentee relationship extends beyond one person giving advice to another. There is a deep personal connection, one built on trust and a shared recognition that challenges exist at work — and everywhere else — but that valuable lessons can be gleaned and put to good use.
Mentors are willing to take their personal hard-won lessons and give them to others.
Why You Need Mentors
“Knowledge was better than ignorance. However agonizing, it was necessary to confront the facts. Only through knowing could a person become strong.” — Haruki Murakami, “Drive My Car” from Men Without Women
Mentors have lasting impacts on our productivity, performance, and progress.
Teens with mentors are significantly less likely to have behavioral problems, employees with mentors are more likely to stay at their jobs for longer than five years, and millennials with mentors are more likely to be happy at work.
Mentors are the people you can turn to with significant questions such as:
• What is my next step?
• How can I level up?
• How do I handle this difficult colleague?
• How can I set myself apart?
• What skills or strengths do I lack?
• What is my superpower?
Not only can you engage in these conversations, but good mentors will guide you to answers and behaviors you can enact to see positive change in your career.
As Laurence Shames and Peter Barton emphasize in Not Fade Away:
“What’s unworthy about working to understand who you truly are and what you really want from life? What better use can a person make of his youth?”
Your mentors see you more truly as you are than you can because they take an outside view. They know what you’re thinking and feeling, but they don’t have the same bias around your environments that you do.
Mentors make you feel valued. When you share your experiences with them, they offer their own, which establishes mutual vulnerability. Trust is deeper, and while the relationship is more emotional than many professional ones, the person helping you has the knowledge you need to succeed.
To strengthen your own skills, understand yourself, and find the opportunities that bring you purpose and joy, you need people who can guide you in a deeply personal way that emphasizes connection.
Why Mentors Need You
Almost every week, when I ask people whether they have a mentor, they share with me a fear of intrusion, of asking for too much, and of not having anything to give back.
Yet this attitude neglects one critical idea. As Allan B. Wallace points out in Buddhism with an Attitude:
“All phenomenon exists in a state of interdependence; nothing exists independently.”
Your relationship with your mentors doesn’t just impact you, but them as well. If you work hard to be present, take their recommendations to heart, and connect with them on a deeper level, you are giving them something valuable.
It’s also important to remember your mentors have mentors themselves. Professional success largely depends on having a support system with the knowledge and experience to guide progress.
How to Find Your Mentors
“Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.” –Franz Kafka
There is not enough time in a day. Trust me, I feel this pain. One of the major barriers to mentorship is making the time to find mentors, especially if they don’t appear in your life organically or are assigned to you by your workplace.
But clearly, mentorship is important.
The best way to save time and make sure you’re using it purposefully — meaning not spending it on folks who aren’t matches — is to build a process first.
Here are the five steps in mine:
1. Identity Your Values: Make a list of the three to five qualities you most admire in a leader and aspire to exhibit. Mine, for example, are kindness, thoughtfulness, and humility.
2. Create a Target List: Identify 15–25 people who exhibit your core values and have some form of leadership position. They can be people you know or people you don’t. The industry doesn’t matter, nor does their function. While you may need help in both, with a list this long, you will end up with the right balance of expertise regardless of whether you focus on it. If you have trouble finding people, revisit live events you’ve attended, videos you’ve watched, and articles you’ve read. You can even ask other people about who they know who showcase these core values.
3. Track Your Targets: Create a tracking table, whether in Excel, Google Sheets, Airtable, or another tool. Create columns for the person’s name, company, role, contact information (if you have it), connection type (warm or cold), whether you know anyone who could connect you if you aren’t already, message history, and notes. Fill in all the columns except for message history.
4. Schedule 30 Minutes of Outreach Each Weekday: Monday through Friday, make it a task for yourself to reach out to one person on your list, or someone connected to one person on your life, each day for 30 minutes. Focus on crafting emails that clearly convey your ask, why it’s mutually beneficial, and your flexibility in meeting where convenient and coming prepared.
5. Meet with Prospective Mentors: As you move through your outreach list and start to make connections, use your 30 minutes for phone calls and coffee chats. Log the message history and any special notes in your tracking table. Always highlight who you think will be a good match.
Build Meaningful Relationships with Your Mentors
Whether you’ve found an incredible mentor through this new process or already have one you value, understand that the onus is completely on you to build and maintain the relationship.
Mentors are giving you their most precious resource: time. That means it’s your responsibility to set the meeting cadence, schedule the meetings, come prepared with a purpose statement and questions, and follow-up consistently. It also means you need to remember to say thank you and keep them updated on your life.
Here are my rules of thumb.
1. Set a Regular 6-Week to 8-Week Meeting Cadence: Meet with your primary mentors every six to eight weeks as their time allows. You should have no more than one to three primary mentors. That’s not to say you won’t have multiple mentors you meet with on different topics at different periods in your life. I have 16 total mentors. If I tried to meet with them every six weeks, I would collapse from exhaustion.
2. Come Prepared: Always prepare a purpose statement before you meet. Clearly identity what problem you want to solve or update you want to work through, and why it’s mutually beneficial. Write out at least three to five questions in advance to steer the conversation.
3. Take Notes: Make sure to take notes on whatever they share. This will be helpful for you when you determine what advice you want to incorporate, but also for the most important part of your mentorship relationship — follow-up.
4. Send Follow-Up’s: After your meeting, send a follow-up email within one week thanking them for their time, highlighting what you learned, and detailing your next steps. If they don’t follow up with you, that’s okay.
5. Send Updates: As you incorporate their advice, let your mentors know how it’s going, especially what’s working. They’re investing time in you because they care about you.
6. Be Generous with Gratitude: Your mentors are being extremely generous with their time, so you need to show your appreciation. Compose handwritten thank-you notes, send gifts, and offer any help you can. While showing gratitude is often enough, you may be feel better if you give something more back.
With all that in mind, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to do everything you mentor advises. As Stephen Spielberg put it, “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”
Your choices are your own. This doesn’t mean you should ignore your mentors or plug your ears when they give you tough feedback. It just means that you are your own person, and you should recognize what resonates with you and what doesn’t.
I’ve always struggled with asking for help, and I feel guilty whenever I do. While I lean on my mentors for support regularly, I still don’t feel comfortable doing it.
In response, I have sent hundreds of handwritten thank you notes, made innumerable candles, terrariums, and jewelry, and even volunteered for the causes my mentors support, all with the hope they would see how much their time meant to me.
Even then, I don’t feel I’ve done enough.
What’s mitigated this experience is that I became a mentor myself.
I realized that sharing my lived experiences with others not only helped me gain clarity about parts of my work and life I’d never thought about closely, but could genuinely benefit others who I wanted to succeed.
This struck me when I received a note from someone I’ve mentored for almost two years.
She wrote, “This epiphany, that what I have is not just a ‘how do I say what I want to say in a meeting’ problem, but a power problem — was mostly brought about by you. I am truly grateful for everything you have done for me.”
Helping a young woman I care about have an epiphany about her own relationship to power — what could be more impactful?
To really get the most out of mentorship, you must move beyond cultivating your relationships with your own mentors and become one yourself.